Monday, July 09, 2007

Across the Columbia on the "Wahkiakum"

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Once upon a time, the only way across the Columbia River was by ferry. Over the years, virtually all of the ferries have been replaced with bridges, with a handful of highly obscure exceptions. This post is about one of them.

The Wahkiakum County Ferry runs between Washington's Puget Island, and tiny Westport, Oregon. As you can see on this map, the ferry crosses the main channel of the river, and then there's a bridge from Puget Island to the town of Cathlamet on the mainland:

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Building a bridge the rest of the way would've been expensive, since it'd have to be quite high to accomodate Portland shipping traffic. I imagine the numbers just didn't pencil out; the town of Westport is just a block or two of old houses on one street near the ferry landing, and Wahkiakum County is the smallest in Washington by size, and among the smallest by population, so I suspect there just isn't sufficient demand to justify building a bridge. Which is fine, if you ask me. The car ferry's kind of fun in a retro sort of way. When the ferry arrives, you drive down the ramp and onto the boat. The attendant will drop by and you pay the $3 toll, and then you just wait until the boat sails. During the 10 minute ride, you can just sit back and watch the river. Contrast that with the Astoria bridge, for example. I don't know about you, but no matter how many times I drive across that bridge, and no matter what the weather's like, for me it's always white knuckle time the whole way across, every single time.

As this history page notes, there's been a ferry here since 1925, and the current vessel (imaginatively dubbed the Wahkiakum) dates to 1962. The county public works department operates it, and their page about the ferry is here, with info on the tolls, current schedule, etc.

The Wahkiakum is the only ferry on the lower Columbia, but there are two others in remote Eastern Washington, as the river comes down from Canada.
There are also a few remaining on the Willamette, at Canby, Wheatland, and Buena Vista. The ghosts of others live on in Portland-area street names: Taylors Ferry, Boones Ferry, Scholls Ferry, Bakers Ferry (out in Clackamas County, in the Carver/Barton area), etc. In the unlikely event that you really want to geek out on this stuff, here's more info on local ferries past and (possibly) future. FWIW.

In any case, here are more photos from the voyage. If you don't like mine, there's more photos of the ferry here, and there's even a VR panorama from on board the ferry here.

First, a not-exactly-thrilling video clip from onboard the ferry.

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The Puget Island ferry dock, sans ferry. There was a bald eagle flying over the river just a moment before I took this. Stupid *!?%#?& digicam lag.

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Detail of the ferry dock. The pilings appear to have been here a long, long time. I wonder if they're original?

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A bit of Puget Island scenery at the ferry dock. The island is basically flat and agricultural, sort of like Sauvie Island. I understand it's popular with cyclists. And yes, you can take you bike on the ferry, or I suppose you could just board as a pedestrian.

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The ferry has rather spartan accommodations for passengers without vehicles. I suppose it's better than nothing if it's stormy outside.

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Onboard the ferry, looking toward the Oregon side. The Westport dock is in a side channel of the river, behind an island, so you don't see it until you're almost there. Until then, the ferry appears to be heading off into the wilderness.

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A nice view of Mt. St. Helens from mid-river. You can't see the mountain from either bank, just from the middle of the river.

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The dock at Westport.


akimbo said...

Great post! I always forget about that ferry.

CruiserCG24 said...

Thanks for this post, was trying to explain Puget Island to my friends back here on East Coast. Now the want to go there. I love the Mt St Helen's photo.